How higher education can—and should—support faculty during and after COVID-19

June 2, 2020

In the past several months, the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic has necessitated swift systemic changes from educational systems across the United States. The changes are leaving many coping with feelings of uncertainty at how education will continue to shift in the coming weeks and months.

Leslie D. Gonzales, associate professor at Michigan State University, is addressing the concerns of faculty and providing guidance on what educational systems can do to support these scholars with a focus on equity and inclusion in a new report from Aspire: The National Alliance for Inclusive & Diverse STEM Faculty.

Leslie Gonzales headshot

“We wanted to create a toolkit to help institutions process what is happening now and determining how to move forward with clear attention to equity,” said Gonzales.

Gonzales co-authored the report, “Supporting Faculty During and After COVID-19,” with Kimberly A. Griffin of the University of Maryland. The two scholars are co-leads of the Aspire Alliance Research team, and help to fulfill Aspire’s mission to develop inclusive working environments for a more diverse STEM faculty across the nation.

“When COVID-19 really hit, we were hearing a very justified anxiety from faculty across many disciplines, and we saw institutions trying to come up with responses in a very short time frame,” Gonzales said. “However, we wanted to be sure that responses centered equity and provided questions leaders should be asking themselves.”

“Don’t let go of equity”

The report covers a variety of topics, from implementing new policies for “tenure clock extensions,” to evaluating prospective faculty hires. The report also addresses the challenges that transitioning to remote teaching and learning have brought to many faculty thus far, and what many may continue to face as institutions consider fall courses being fully or partially online. 

One example is acknowledging there may be dip in faculty productivity during this unprecedented time. Research has been, and in many cases continues to be, slowed or stopped. Journals have been slowing their review decisions. Conferences have been postponed or cancelled. These areas, and more, affect evidence of scholarly productivity and contribution.

Gonzales and Griffin encourage institutions, committees and reviewers to “apply a different standard when assessing faculty research and publication activity for the academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21, and perhaps even 2021-22.” 

Instead, Gonzales says, look at factors faculty are currently addressing.

“We should increase the value placed on teaching in an annual review. Faculty are doing a lot of scrambling and absorbing new learning related to remote teaching. Faculty continue to invest in their learning through virtual workshops, reading and tweaking their practices. These are efforts that should be recognized as important work.”

Erickson Hall, featuring the magnolia tree in bloom in front of the building.
Erickson Hall, home to the MSU College of Education.

Faculty are also engaging in a high level of emotional labor related to student well-being. Research suggests racially minoritized and marginalized faculty are likely to be spending more time and energy on these aspects, and institutional leaders must be willing to state and assign value to this incredibly important work.

Gonzales says evaluation committees must be prepared to value teaching through a different lens—which is especially important for non-tenure-track professors and pre-tenure faculty.

Supporting all faculty

Gonzales and Griffin also call on institutions to consider how COVID-19 has and continues to affect faculty members from different backgrounds and family units.

For example, Gonzales pointed out the Native American (and particularly the Navajo community), Black and Latinx communities are experiencing higher rates of infection and loss. Thus, dips in productivity, especially for faculty of color, may also be connected to emotional trauma and loss. Institutions proclaiming a commitment to inclusivity and equity must be willing to address faculty experiences holistically.

“Leaders are thinking about how to address problems related to COVID-19, but many also have the pressing problem of addressing equity, inclusion, diversity on campus,” Gonzales explained.

“When crises emerge, you don’t need to let go of your commitments to these ideals. In fact, times of crises expose and heighten inequities. I’m hoping leaders will be encouraged to address these new challenges and their ongoing commitments at the same time, thinking about policy and practices that address both.”

More from Gonzales

Gonzales’s work in Aspire builds on various pilot projects funded by the NSF INCLUDES program, including one awarded to Gonzales in 2016.

Separately, recently published work from Gonzales and College of Education graduate Guadalupe Saldivar found Latina scholars were rarely featured in academic literature.